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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Ellenore was somewhat uncultivated


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[Sidenote: Benjamin Constant--_Adolphe_.]

Benjamin Constant's masterpiece, which (the sequel to it never having appeared, though it was in existence in manuscript less than a century ago) is also his only purely literary work, is a very small book, but it calls here for something more than a very small mention. The books which make an end are almost fewer in literature than those which make a beginning, and this is one of them. Like most such books, it made a beginning also, showing the way to Beyle, and through Beyle to all the analytic school of the nineteenth century. Space would not here suffice to discuss the singular character of its author, to whom Sainte-Beuve certainly did some injustice, as the letters to Madame Recamier show, but whose political and personal experiences as certainly call for a large allowance of charity. The theory of _Adolphe's_ best editor, M. de Lescure (which also was the accepted theory long before M. de Lescure's time), that the heroine of the novel was Madame de Stael, will not, I think, hold water. In every characteristic, personal and mental, Ellenore and Madame de Stael are at opposite poles. Ellenore was beautiful, Madame de Stael was very nearly hideous; Ellenore was careless of her social position, Corinne was as great a slave to society as any one who ever lived; Ellenore was somewhat uncultivated, had little _esprit_, was indifferent

to flattery, took not much upon herself in any way except in exacting affection where no affection existed; the good Corinne was one of the cleverest women of her time, and thought herself one of the cleverest of all times, could not endure that any one in company should be of a different opinion on this point, and insisted on general admiration and homage.

However, this is a very minor matter, and anybody is at liberty to regard the differences as deliberate attempts to disguise the truth. What is important is that Madame de Stael was almost the last genuine devotee of Sensibility, and that _Adolphe_ was certainly written by a lover of Madame de Stael, who had, from his youth up, been a Man of Feeling of a singularly unfeeling kind. When Constant wrote the book he had run through the whole gamut of Sensibility. He had been instructed as a youth[410] by ancient women of letters; he had married and got rid of his wife _a la mode Germanorum_; he had frequently taken a hint from _Werther_, and threatened suicide with the best possible results; he had given, perhaps, the most atrocious example of the atrocious want of taste which accompanied the decadence of Sensibility, by marrying Charlotte von Hardenburg out of pique, because Madame de Stael would not marry him, then going to live with his bride near Coppet, and finally deserting her, newly married as she was, for her very uncomely but intellectually interesting rival. In short, according to the theory of a certain ethical school, that the philosopher who discusses virtue should be thoroughly conversant with vice, Benjamin Constant was a past master in Sensibility. It was at a late period in his career, and when he had only one trial to go through (the trial of, as it seems to me, a sincere and hopeless affection for Madame Recamier), that he wrote _Adolphe_. But the book has nothing whatever to do with 1815, the date which it bears. It is, as has been said, the history of the Nemesis of Sensibility, the prose commentary by anticipation on Mr. Swinburne's admirable "Stage Love"--


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